Report

Smartphones can deliver vital public services

Jack Karsten and Darrell M. West

Representative Jason Chaffetz recently compared the decision to purchase health insurance as a tradeoff with buying an iPhone. While the congressman has since walked back his comments, critics have highlighted the importance of smartphone ownership, especially for low-income individuals that are most likely to go without health insurance coverage. Beyond communication, smartphones have become indispensable for everything from banking to transportation in the decade since the launch of the iPhone. Through mobile broadband or Wi-Fi, smartphones deliver internet access that is increasingly important in today’s economy. The devices can also improve healthcare outcomes by reminding patients of their appointments and treatments. Given the ability of smartphones to connect users to government services, lawmakers should consider making them more widely available.

Authors

An expanding array of services

Smartphones are so integral to the daily lives of many Americans because they provide a platform for a nearly endless quantity of services. Combining sensors, a processor, and a wireless antenna in a handset allows users to access and manipulate information in any number of ways. Because of this, a smartphone today can handle a much wider variety of tasks than the original iPhone could, and a smartphone (or its technological successor) will handle an even greater number of tasks a decade from now. Ridesharing is one example of this phenomenon: a smartphone in 2007 could give directions, but in 2017 it can summon a driver on demand. More time will only expand the range of services that a smartphone offers, making them more integral.

For households that cannot afford a home computer or internet service, smartphones may be the only means of getting online. Internet access is required for everything from applying to jobs to completing homework. The Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program already subsidizes mobile broadband coverage for low-income households, with minimum service standards for connection speeds and data limits that rise over time. These rising standards should reflect the shift towards greater mobile internet usage and allow for sufficiently high connection speeds and data limits.

Smartphones can also improve the provision of healthcare by encouraging healthy behavior, remotely connecting patients to doctors, and reminding patients to follow through on treatments at home. Insurance companies already offer financial incentives to customers that track their exercise activity using fitness apps. Telemedicine allows patients to consult with specialists located far from home. Finally, doctors can send reminders to patients to take medicines at the appropriate times, and also receive timely feedback on how well a treatment is working. Rather than compete with health insurance for a limited amount of income, smartphones should augment healthcare.

Cities and towns without the population density to support mass transportation infrastructure are turning to rideshare apps to boost the mobility of residents. Towns on the outskirts of Philadelphia, Tampa, and Oakland subsidize the rides that residents order on their smartphones. Other cities are experimenting with bus routes that change dynamically when riders order a pickup via smartphone app. While these services might not replace cars in cities without public transportation, offering another option may reduce traffic congestion. Smartphones are the linchpin for today’s flexible public transportation options.

A smartphone in every hand

Governments have a vested interest in lowering the cost of healthcare, public transportation, and internet access. While smartphones are at best a partial solution to lowering costs, the breadth of digital services available on smartphones make them a sound investment. Fortunately, many Americans already own smartphones: 77 percent of adults, per 2016 Pew survey data, and smartphones might be the fastest spreading technology in human history. Given just how many Americans own smartphones and use them daily, lawmakers should consider ways to provide more government services on them. By reaching citizens anytime and anywhere, smartphone apps can increase access to vital information without opening additional offices and staffing them with personnel. Policymakers should view smartphones not as a luxury item, but a conduit for vital public services.